Situated in Dachau, close to the German city of Munich, lies the incredibly moving memorial site of The Dachau concentration camp. This former Nazi concentration camp, established in 1933, is probably one of the most important World War II sites in Germany.
For us, our visit brought the historic element of the second World war alive in a truly dignified manner. Most importantly, Dachau is not only a modern day memorial but also a worldwide education and research centre.
Although the pretty town of Dachau boasts an 18th century palace. Admittedly, due to its past, it’s not somewhere you’d associate with beauty. However, this historic town was once the home of artist’s and painter’s, who came here to paint.
It was during March 1933, that the first Nazi imprisonment camp opened here. This would see this historic town of Dachau change forever.
In 1959 a campaign began to keep the former concentration camp as a memorial site. Then in 1965 it officially opened as the Dachau concentration camp memorial site.
In the year’s that followed, there was a programme of gradual improvements, including restoration works and further exhibits. The current visitor centre opened in 2009 and provides plenty of informative resources for the visit.
As we arrived at the site, we found the large parking area adjacent to the entrance easy for parking the motorhome. There’s a small parking fee, so after paying, we made our way towards the visitor centre building.
We chose a self-guided tour, simply because we’d missed the guided tour option, but remarkably admission to the site is actually free. For those preferring the guided tour, the cost was just a few Euro’s.
When we left the visitor centre, a path soon lead us toward the entrance of the concentration camp grounds. Above us, the clouds rolled in, soon bringing a Summer rain shower with them and a dull, heavy feeling to the air.
Somehow, this mirrored our thoughts, not least due to the fact that a staggering 41,500 inmates had perished here between 1933 and 1945.
As we continued along the stone walkway, we soon came across the place where railway tracks once stood. This had been the route to the camp from the railway station at Dachau, even so, we found it hard to imagine.
It had been during one such train transportation of prisoner’s, in April 1945 that one of the most distressing events occurred. We learnt that worse still, was the fact that this happened just two days before the allied liberation.
The harrowing events unfolded during the transportation of 4,480 prisoner’s from another camp at Buchenwald. The long journey to Dachau had taken a staggering 21 days, as a result, by the time the train arrived, only 816 people had survived. To add further harm, when the train finally stopped in front of the Dachau camp, the SS guards refused its entry.
When the US army liberated the camp, they discovered the occupants of the train, but it had been too late to save the thousand’s who perished.
Before long, we found ourselves in front of the original iron gates of the Dachau concentration camp. The harsh reality of the inscription within the metal work left a haunting impression.
Here before us, lay the words “Arbeit Mact-Frei”, meaning “Work sets you free”.
As we entered through the large black gates, a feeling of unease came over us. In truth, nothing can prepare you for stepping in the footsteps of those that suffered so much. Particularly when the surroundings seem so unremarkable in many ways.
One could only imagine those walking through these very gates. It must have seemed like they were entering the gates to hell.
The main artefacts of the memorial are housed within the former maintenance building. It’s here that a range of displays and exhibits guide visitors through the various stages of the camp.
This part of the exhibition is known as “the path of prisoners”. Most of all, it’s an interesting but graphic account of Nazi rule that, not surprisingly left us feeling emotional to the scale of the atrocities that went on here.
In January 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, within 2 months, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS opened the first concentration camp here at Dachau.
Initially, Dachau was only used to contain political prisoner’s, although punishments were still extremely harsh. By 1934, political opponents to the Hitler regime were brought to Dachau, where many were shot dead.
During this period, Dachau was used as a model concentration camp, ultimately setting out the design for all future camp’s. It was in 1936 that the SS began their reign of racial ideology and cleansing. Soon the imprisonment of other innocent people began to take place, including those whose only crime was their sexuality or race.
By 1937, the camp was too small, resulting in a mass expansion, so building work soon began to house up to 6000 inmates. Once again, slave labour was used for the construction project.
After the occupation of Austria in 1938, an incredible 11,000 Jewish men were sent to Dachau. Eventually, when war broke out in 1939, the prisoner’s, used as slave labour, made weapons for the German war effort.
When the war broke out in September 1939, prisoner’s were re-located to other concentration camps. During this brief period, the Dachau camp was used as a weapons factory, but soon things would change again.
Within a few months, Dachau was once again was in use as a concentration camp. Over the course of the war, the camp that was supposed to house 6000 inmates, instead had around 30,000 people within its walls.
Those that were sent here, were crammed into the most horrific conditions, where typhus spread fast and disease killed many.
Dachau was not only a place of tyranny, death and disease, but also a centre of medical experiments. These were inflicted on inmates in the most inhumane circumstances.
For those who broke the rules or other groups, such as the thousands of Soviet’s sent to Dachau, often many faced death by firing squad.
The visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site is one of reflection in many ways. Although the facts are haunting and often hard to comprehend, by contrast, the format here is educational and dignified.
As we walked down “Camp Road”, the rows of concrete kerb stones lay ahead, marking out the location of the former barracks. There would have been 34 huts here, all built in a symmetrical manner across the site, seemingly stretching on as far as the eye could see.
Seeing the reconstruction of the original barracks that once stood within the grounds is a moving experience in itself. The memorial site has built two barracks for visitors to enter, replicating both the size, as well as the layout and the fitments found in the original huts.
Inside our thoughts once again turned to the inmates. How crammed they would have been in there, living with so many others, but also having to cope with disease, death and unimaginable suffering.
Life on one of these hard, wooden bunks would have often been almost unbearable within such circumstances.
We made our way back outside and into the vast open space of the Dachau concentration camp memorial. Ahead of us, the path soon brought us to one of the most harrowing buildings of all, the former crematorium.
Through a tree-lined path, the crematoria buildings came into view. These had been saved from demolition back in 1955 at the insistence of the committee in charge of the site.
Once again, the normality of the surroundings brought a strange detachment from what lay in front of us. How could such a beautiful area, surrounded by trees with birds singing, actually have been one of the darkest places in wartime Europe?
Inside, the brick built furnaces lay virtually intact, yet there came an element of peaceful reflection here. The exhibition had maintained a dignified and respectful feeling throughout, no more so than here, in what was once the depths of deepest human deprivation.
During April 1945, just before the end of the war, the SS ordered the death march of over 7000 inmates from Dachau. Those too weak to make the 6-day long journey were either shot or died from starvation or disease along the way.
When the US army began liberating the Dachau camp at the end of April 1945, the surviving inmates were extremely close to death.
The true figures of those that passed through or died at Dachau will never be known, but it’s estimated to be hundred’s of thousands. The actual reported numbers of those registered were over 200,000 people.
Today, the Dachau concentration camp memorial site brings a time for reflection and remembrance. The site holds many educational visits as well as commemorative events, ensuring that history and the people who perished through the Nazi regime are not forgotten.
For us, the visit brought both an educational perspective and gratitude to all those who gave their lives. Today, we hope that the lessons of the past have been learned and that no one has to endure those horrific circumstances inflicted on so many.